For all its faults, this remains the best souvenir I brought back from last summer's pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon!
The fact that poor women are relatively absent from Shakespeare's plays has not kept McNeill from writing a very interesting - although ineptly-named - book.
In so far as they are at all present in Shakespeare, with the exception of 'Measure by Measure', it is mostly as facilitators of the plot : They were mobile, and so were put to use to link geographical places to one another.
Other 17th century plays, however, look more closely at these "spinsters" so McNeill draws on these to bolster her findings. As I knew very few of these plays, however, I tended to read this more as a history (or herstory) book than as literary analysis.
As such, I learnt for instance that :
- Poor women lacked a stable identity (i.e. profession and/or marital status) and their "shifting" was heavily connoted with illicit sexual activity.
Add to this the prevailing contemporary idea of poverty - idleness, to be cured by manual labor and physical punishment - and you will see why this group of people was so worrying to the London establishment.
- Fun fact : It was apparently quite common for a woman to need the help of an expert in deciding whether she was pregnant. Far more frequently than now, women were surprised by childbirth, as they lacked understanding of their own bodies.
(Which makes sense when you know that the female anatomy was believed to be identical with the male, except projected inwards.)
Rather than lifting her shirt, a jury of matrons squeezed milk out of breasts and considered changed appetites as evidence for pregnancy.
- From the very beginning, 1619, "plantation" meant female inmates from Bridewell House of correction were shipped over to Jamestown in the New World to help planting new Virginia citizens.
I had no idea this had gone on elsewhere than in Australia, but it seems the idea was also extended to Ireland.
In short : I learnt a lot!